PLOT: A son takes his old father on a trip to claim what the latter believes will be a million dollar fortune - but the son knows is just a scam.
REVIEW: Alexander Payne does this better than anyone. The stories of the sad sacks who are afraid of watching their life slip away; the compromised, aging men who finally realize that they maybe could have done more - for their families, for themselves. He makes "dramadies", but avoids the cliches that come with that silly word - he never tugs for the heartstrings, just shows us the arc of a genuine, flesh and blood character who is grasping for something they may never reach, and manages to make this semi-tragedy amusing because, well, life is pretty amusing, even during the bad parts.
NEBRASKA may not be Payne's best film, but let's not split hairs: it's another rock solid gem for the director, who counts stellar titles like SIDEWAYS, ABOUT SCHMIDT and THE DESCENDANTS among his credits. And if nailing a difficult tone that combines melancholy regret with an enthusiastic sense of adventure is Payne's specialty, then the ability to cast his movies perfectly and unexpectedly is a close second. His leads this time are Bruce Dern - that aging character actor who has always seemed like a grizzled, untrustworthy sort - and Will Forte, who has made a name for himself going absolutely bonkers on "SNL" (special MACGRUBER shoutout inserted here). No, you wouldn't think to pair these two up as the stars of a touching tale of healing old family wounds in Middle America, but we should always give Payne the benefit of the doubt. This man made George Clooney look like a schlubby loser, stripped Jack Nicholson of any and all swagger, gave Thomas Haden Church of all people a role that would net him an Oscar nomination. Yeah, Payne knows what he's doing, and with these two he has struck gold again.
Payne also loves a good road trip, and NEBRASKA is a road trip movie all the way, taking place in the heart of America and peering into a portion of the country so alien to big city folk like myself. Payne is adept at shining a light on places not always well represented by the movies - THE DESCENDANTS actually made us think about what it's like to live in Hawaii, as opposed to just showing us the pretty sights - and here he takes us on an illuminating journey through the barren fields and roads of a sparsely populated portion of the country. The film was shot in gorgeous black and white, absolutely the right choice when paired with the location - not to mention the supporting cast, most of them locals - as the film ends up with a timeless look and feel.
Dern plays Woody, an old man whose days of boozing have left him teetering on the edge of dementia and desperation. His days of having something to truly live for are over; he's looking down the barrel. His wife Kate (June Squibb, more about her later) acts as his bitter caretaker, constantly irritated by the wandering old man and the responsibilities thrust upon her daily. One day he receives a letter informing him that he's won one million dollars. Anyone else who looks at the letter can see it's one of those transparent scams designed to cajole you into signing up for magazines, but Woody doesn't see that. Can't see that, actually, and whether or not he actually knows it's a scam is one of the movie's wonderful mysteries. Woody is determined to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska where the letter generated from, with or without anyone else's assistance.
After trying unsuccessfully to simply walk to Nebraska in order to claim his prize (they live in Omaha, so no easy feat), Woody finds unlikely help in the form of David (Forte), one of two sons Woody has obviously never had much interest or time for. David is living his own depressing existence as a stereo salesman; he's just lost his girlfriend and lives somewhat in the shadow of his older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local television anchor. David sees the journey to Nebraska with his weary old man as a chance for them to reconnect (or simply connect for the first time). He also knows that, while the "million dollar prize" is bull, the trip means a lot to Woody. What else does he have to live for, and how much longer will he be around?
Woody and David's road trip is thankfully devoid of wacky antics and asides; a Hollywood movie would have them blundering into all sorts of goofy situations, but Nelson's script tells the tale simply, with the humor generated from David's frustrated attempts to talk to his father, and his father's stubborn unbending on his goal (he's also just not much of a talker, never has been we're told). What is also wonderful here is that we're not made to sit through the standard heart-to-hearts and tear-filled apologies for past mistakes. The past is confronted, yes, and David ends up learning a lot more about his parents than he ever did, but NEBRASKA is remarkably low-key and benign even during its big emotional beats.
There are a few big laughs to be had, and most of them come courtesy of June Squibb as the surly Kate, who joins Woody and David in Nebraska at a family gathering. Another Payne casting masterstroke, Squibb comes out of absolutely nowhere and delivers a stunningly spirited performance as a woman who has never been afraid to speak her mind. It's a richly complex character; one minute she's browbeating Woody into submission and making us hate her for it, the next she's defending him against the leeches who hear the good word that he's going to be a "millionaire" and want a piece of the action. Don't be surprised if Squibb gets an Oscar nomination, it's just the kind of story the Academy loves: a veteran of the industry who has never made much of a mark and suddenly shows up and thoroughly knocks it out of the park with an instant-classic of a character.
Still, the movie belongs to Dern and Forte; they're both terrific. Dern, who in the past has played characters who are just as fiery as Woody's wife, gives a quiet, nuanced performance that is almost so pitch-perfect you don't even realize you're watching an actor act. He simply is this sad, confused old man. Not completely out to lunch, however; he hides a wily side. Watch the way his eyes light up in certain scenes and try not to be moved. Forte is every bit up to the task of sharing the screen with this great actor. What's a relief to see is that Forte is not underplaying the role too severely the way some comedians will with a straightforward part; his comedic timing is still very much there, but it's housed in a character who is exasperated with his circumstances. It's a very winning performance, and while it may not exactly portend a career filled with dramatic roles for Forte, it signals a humanity and sweetness that most of us probably did not realize was there.
NEBRASKA is one of the best movies of the year, of this there is no doubt, and Payne continues to prove he is one the great American directors of our time.